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'A Separation,' 'Safe House,' and other must-see movies this weekend

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A Separation
Habib Madjidi

Back in 2008, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D was actually a movie that came out in theaters, and not just something your parents invented to give you nightmares. Journey 3D seemed, at the time, like a curiosity: A movie shot almost entirely on a greenscreen, with human-ish actors like Brendan Fraser and a pre-Peeta Josh Hutcherson pretending to be scared by poorly animated creatures. The gimmick, of course, was that the whole thing was shot in 3-D, at a time when 3-D seemed kind of fun. Four years later, half the major blockbusters are filmed in front of greenscreens, 3-D has become the evil price-gouging mustache-twirling villain of American cinema, and Jules Verne’s angry corpse has once again been exhumed for Journey 2: Electric 2galoo. Don’t see that! Instead, consider checking out the most important movie to see this weekend:

1. A Separation

“Toot-toot!” says the Separation Whistle-Stop Express. “We’re setting off on a cross-country journey, making stops in all local theaters, so be sure to swing by and say hello!” Yes, the likely winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar just keeps expanding into more theaters. This week, A Separation will open in Denver, Austin, and Plano, but that’s just a quiet rumble — next week, the film will find its way to Anchorage, Tucson, Boca Raton, and about a million other cities in these United States. If it’s already playing near you, check it out; if not, start preparing yourself by doing brain-stretches, so it doesn’t hurt to much when A Separation blows your mind.

2. Chronicle

The most eccentric movie about people with superpowers since Hellboy 2, and the most interesting use of the found-footage documentary style in years, Chronicle was at the top of the box office last weekend and might just make a movie star out of the endlessly charismatic Michael B. Jordan (who has already conquered television, between roles on The Wire and Friday Night Lights).

3. The Innkeepers

Last week, Daniel Radcliffe’s horror chiller The Woman in Black made $20 million off Potter rubberneckers, but Ti West’s much smaller throwback made about a hundredth of that in 25 theaters. But Innkeepers has the advantage of being available On Demand, and also of being actually good.

4. Safe House

I haven’t liked a Denzel Washington movie in a long time — Inside Man, 2006, even better than you remember — but I always like Denzel Washington. In a miserable Hollywood moment when most young actors have to mortgage their futures by wasting their charisma on plastic half-cartoon franchises, Washington is admirably old-school in his choice of movies. With a few exceptions, he makes old-school thrillers — they might look like action movies, but they’re really about the pure force of Washington’s personality. (It’s especially striking in Safe House, where Washington is starkly paired up with Ryan Reynolds — whose moment already seems to have faded away.)

5. The Descendants

Like Washington, George Clooney is an old-school movie star. But whereas Washington mostly sticks to one genre wheelhouse, Clooney has made a career out of plugging his highly specific star persona — attractive, roguish, charismatically graying glamourboy — into a wide variety of auteurist projects. Some people have called Descendants a stretch for Clooney, since he’s playing a rough approximation of a normal human being. But the real cinematic joy of the movie is seeing a guy who has allowed himself to become a listless schlub rediscover his confidence, his energy — really, his inner George Clooney.

6. Haywire

Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!

7./8. Hugo / The Artist

Film! Film! Film! Film!

9. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace

Besides 2 Journey 2 Furious, there is one other big new 3-D release this weekend. It is called Star Wars, although the movie hitting theaters feels nothing at all like the epoch-redefining film that opened in May 1977. That film was fast-paced and thrilling; Phantom Menace feels like one of those lost Gospels that the editors chopped out for being too boring. And yet, it’s being rereleased in 3-D for two demographics: Angry completist fans who will hold their nose and see any new Star Wars thing, and children young enough to not understand dialogue. If you fit either of those demographics, then this is the movie for you. Otherwise…

10. Pina

Why not go see a movie that actually uses 3-D to accomplish something besides stealing your lunch money? Listen, when my friends told me they were going to see a German modern-dance documentary, I tried to find a window to jump out of so that I could break my leg and have a good excuse for not seeing the movie. Fortunately, we work in an office with no windows or sunshine or, indeed, happiness, which meant I had no excuse but to go and see Pina, which is flat-out the most intriguingly complex use of 3-D in any movie this year. And unlike Hugo, it doesn’t have any third-act problems, because there are no acts, because it’s a documentary! Anyhow, this is much better than Phantom Menace.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich